The enormous print on the newspaper’s front page jolted my 10-year-old soul.
It was December 7, 1989. The imposing headline—”CAMPUS MASSACRE”—on my suburban Montreal kitchen table alerted me to the fact that my world had changed.
The day before, a man had barged into the École Polytechnique engineering school and separated men from women. He shot dead 14 female students and one staff member and injured others. “Feminists” were the object of his wrath.
On December 7, 1989, I became a feminist.
Throughout my life, those 14 spirits haunted my heart, never letting me forget the dangers and obstacles I faced as a woman.
Thirty years later, I wonder: how has the massacre influenced me and women of my generation, who grew up in its shadow? Are Canadian women better off today than in 1989?
Watch: In memoriam: Dec. 6, 1989. Story continues below.
Growing up in 1980s Montreal, my peers and I were the daughters of feminism. The world was open to us—or so we thought. As a girl, I spent most of my time on sports and books instead of dolls. I didn’t know what it meant to be a feminist, because I didn’t need to. No one gave me reason to doubt my self-worth. Gender never influenced my choices or actions.
In my idyllic, middle-class neighbourhood, kids played street hockey and traipsed across backyards in search of playmates, unannounced and unsupervised. Crime was rare; mass shootings were nonexistent. My world felt safe.
The Polytechnique massacre was a vicious wake-up call, shaking my confidence and sense of self. Its simple brutality was shocking. The murderer said to an entire generation: “You think you can act like equals? Think again.”
On that sunny December morning, the photo of a slain woman staring at me as I ate my breakfast cereal before school, I was horrified. It was a naive and purposeful horror though, different than what I feel today after similar events; it was the moment I discovered bad guys were real. It was the moment I found purpose in life, the moment I grasped that I had to change the world.
“The murderer said to an entire generation: 'You think you can act like equals? Think again.'”
As a 10-year-old girl, I knew I had to fight. My rights and safety were not self-evident.
I don’t recall my parents hiding the news from me. The massacre was all over the media for months, and I used to watch the evening news with my father on our huge analog TV. These days, web articles explain how to talk to kids about mass murders. Back then, there were few mass murders to talk of, so the adults were also stupefied. If they couldn’t explain it to themselves, how could they mollify it for the children?
I was old enough to understand the stakes, but my identity was still malleable. If until then, gender was not an issue, from that moment, gender guided my life. Following the massacre, I became more attuned to sexism and how I was treated differently as a female. It made me realize that many of the things I took for granted were actually skewed against me. I subsequently dedicated my life to activism and feminist initiatives.
In high school, I joined social action groups. On December 6, we commemorated the anniversary with a display of 14 life-size shadow images. In those years, I became more aware of my physical vulnerability, especially when I walked alone or returned home at night. With the massacre in mind, I took a self-defence course. I wanted to be prepared if a man like the Polytechnique attacker tried to rape or kill me.
In response to the tragedy, girls and women in Quebec were encouraged to study engineering and science. Scholarships emerged as incentives for women to enter these fields.
Fighting a pervasive sexism
Many of my female friends and classmates became engineers as well as doctors and lawyers, in numbers and status greater than in our mothers’ generation. This trend, which was the result of many societal changes, was welcome.
Still, Canadian men overwhelmingly outnumber women in engineering. In 2014, less than 10 per cent of Canadian engineers were women, according to the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation.
The warning of Dec. 6 rang true in other ways as well.
Pop culture—the teen mags, music videos and movies I consumed—widely portrayed women as sex objects. The beauty ideal fell far below a healthy body weight; this sent a problematic message to everyone, especially girls. In those years, I regularly passed a billboard featuring a girl my age with her legs spread open, her gaze distraught—an ad for jeans, or rape culture encapsulated.
I spent most of my life fighting these faulty standards and representations. Growing up, I wasn’t satisfied with how I looked and tried constantly to lose weight. I am not alone; I know few women my age who are at peace with their bodies.
I understood that this public obsession with women’s appearance is an explicit form of sexism. It’s the same sexism that compelled the shooter to eliminate women from an engineering school, a place which valued their brains over their bodies. With that in mind, I launched Eve, a popular web ’zine, aiming to counter teen beauty magazines with positive female role models and authentic, intellectual content.
Later, as I embarked on a career in media and non-profits, women’s “organizations” and “issues” abounded, but beyond my bubble many people considered “feminist” a bad word. It pained me to see women being ashamed to fight for their rights.
Becoming a mother has brought new perspectives on the massacre and its legacy.
I am ecstatic that my school-age sons ask why it’s significant that Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet is half-female and that Hillary Clinton ran for President of the United States. They take these breakthroughs for granted.
My baby daughter will likely benefit from more opportunities and freedom than I had, but also experience more confusion.
The princess mega-industry plies girls with mixed messages early on. The same paradoxical theme is found in toys marketed to girls (such as Lego’s “Wedding Favor” kits), which encourage them to simultaneously learn STEM and obsess over boys.
Open dialogue about sexual assault à la #MeToo is critical and encouraging, but more awareness exposes how much danger we face.
Thirty years after that formative moment, how far have we come as women?
The answer is not clear-cut. The strides we’ve made are tempered by regression and new challenges, both subtle and complex.
Recent developments in the U.S. epitomize this contradiction.
It took a wildly sexist president, accused by numerous women of sexual assault, to bring the word “feminist” back into style. Millions of women had to march to prove that we matter. And despite that massive global movement, governments in the U.S. are trying to repeal basic rights like abortion.
Were my thirty years of activism worth it? Of course. My feminism is an essential part of who I am, and it’s a value I teach my children.
My personal reckoning in December 1989 empowered me. I have tools to identify and counter discrimination. We shouldn’t wait for a crisis to demand our rights and rightful place in society. We cannot afford to be complacent. The case of the U.S. proves that.
The misogyny that fermented into femicide in 1989 still manifests itself in ways big and small. I’ve learned that we must fight all gender injustices—from harmful advertising to violence against women—because they are just different variations of the same, ugly phenomenon.
In memory of the women killed on December 6, 1989:
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